Julian Serrano

Proper Paella: From sofrito to socarrat, Aria’s resident Iberian dishes on how to make this iconic Spanish rice dish

When Julian Serrano was opening his eponymous tapas restaurant in Aria at CityCenter, he knew the paella was going to be very important to the menu. But as with many cuisines that have to appeal to the variety of palates that visit Las Vegas, Serrano had to tweak his paella to accommodate his guests. “In the beginning, we were doing paella like how they make it in Spain.” He wags his finger. “We are not in Spain.”

The James Beard Award-winner has been a veteran of the Las Vegas dining scene for many years, so he is acutely aware of his audience. In Madrid, for example, the rice in paella tends to be slightly al dente, something that doesn’t fly with the high number of Asian tourists who come to the Strip. Serrano and his team corrected this by allowing the paella to rest after coming out of the oven, effectively letting the rice absorb more of the cooking liquid. And after months of listening to customer feedback and adjusting accordingly, the paella coming out of the kitchen is to almost everyone’s liking, including his own.

Serrano admits that turning out paella in large quantities is not an easy task. Making it in smaller batches is definitely easier for the home cook, and that’s the way Serrano likes it. There are several different types of paella made in Spain, but the original, and probably the most widely recognized, is paella Valenciana, which refers to the region where paella originated. It’s a big seller on Serrano’s menu.

For Serrano, the most important thing about making proper paella is the sofrito. A common way to start dishes in many Latin-influenced cuisines, a Spanish sofrito generally consists of diced tomatoes, onions and garlic. But Serrano does this in layers when he makes paella at home. First the onions and peppers are sweated with olive oil in the pan until they caramelize. Then the tomatoes and garlic are added and slowly cooked until they also break down the natural sugars in the ingredients, creating this rich brown concoction. “The pepper that caramelizes is fantastic; onions taste sweet, and the garlic and tomatoes together is magical,” Serrano says wistfully.

Once there is this beautiful fond (base) in the bottom of the pan, add the rice, then the chicken stock and give it a stir. The chicken stock will loosen all the caramelized bits from the pan, and all that flavor from the sofrito is infused and distributed through the stock.

No matter what recipe you are using, you will need a paellera, a round, wide and shallow pan. “The paellera is important because it’s not too deep so you don’t put a lot of rice. You want as little rice as possible so everything cooks evenly,” Serrano advises. If the pan is too deep, as the cooking liquid reduces, the rice on the top will remain raw as all the liquid absorbs into the bottom layers of rice, which will end up overcooked.”

The paellera (try SurLaTable.com) is also key to getting the socarrat, that nice layer of sweet, toasted rice at the bottom that is associated with good paella. This can be difficult to attain when cooking paella in an oven, rather than over a wood fire, as they would in Spain.

And to those who insist on a few more ingredients, Serrano suggests picking items that all take the same amount of time to cook. “Some things take 20 minutes, some things 30 seconds. People want to put scallops or more shrimp—you should avoid these, or time them well, otherwise they’re going to be overcooked by 10 minutes.”

When it comes to the meats and seafood that go into paella, “Don’t make it complicated,” Serrano urges. “Chicken, clams and lobster. That’s it. The less things you put in the paella, the better. The most important thing is the rice.”